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The Anchor Of Nostalgia

Marilyn Monroe died almost exactly five years before I was born (and exactly fifty years before this writing). Living as she did before my era, I, of course never met her, and in fact have only ever met one person who ever knew her.   But more importantly, for the purposes of this story, she died about 20 years before my nostalgia and longing for the past gained its own sentience.

Scene One: As Young As You Feel

    And with the birth of a longing for a past I had never experienced (probably unusual for a 12 year old), I longed for the Fifties, or I should (and must) say, the celluloid depiction of the Fifties.  Being so young I never knew how ridiculously close that time actually was to me; it would be similar to a longing for the early Nineties now (which, come to think of it, I do too).

You learn these things when you get older and you see how long the metaphorical rubber band, anchored at one end by the era of wonder, is being pulled tighter by passing of time.  One’s nostalgia is (like the horse pulling the cart) the force moving forward and pulling the rubber band. It’ll eventually either snap (and you’ll lose your wonder) or try to pull you into the past with greater urgency (and you become a writer, a historian, or a psychiatric patient).

People often say, “everybody dies,” that’s become a banal truism.  But how about this, “everybody was once alive.”  This is, of course, something we the living have in common with all of those now dead.

And for me, that thing called “the movies” has always been the bridge between the two.

Older movies, cinema, all film, temporarily remove that formerly obstinate anchor holding the other end of the rubber band and lets the past meet you, the viewer, in the here and now (hopefully it does not snap back with too much force!).

Hollywood Legends are really those actors that bring something that any viewer can identify with in the here and now.  The better they were at their craft (and this depends so largely too on the writers), the more tangible the 20’s, 30’s, or any decade can feel to a movie fan or nostalgist (like myself) now.

All celluloid icons have their signature moments.  For Marilyn Monroe it is the skirt blowing scene from “The Seven Year Itch” or perhaps her singing “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend” from “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.”

As far as I’m concerned that signature moment comes later in “Gentlemen.”  Her character in the movie is a manipulator (as Marilyn the actress was, by definition). She is dancing with an older rich man (an owner of a diamond mine named Piggy) in a ballroom aboard a cruise ship.  She is being spied on through a porthole window and that is also the point of view of the camera.  She is laughing and saying something and is in control of a man obviously enthralled by her (as Marilyn the actress was, by definition).  She lets him speak and in mock astonishment says “Oh Piggy!”

Lorelei and Piggy

That’s it, the famous moment; it was the encapsulation of the character she played in that movie and in several others.  She was a woman who knew she was in control but was gracious enough to concede it, if only momentarily and in a kind of jest.  In viewing that scene, we are all naturally the viewers through the porthole window; and we get that she is not really giving up control; she is in fact exerting it.  But the movie viewers are also at the same time Piggy, all agush and just going along for the ride.  That scene and other scenes like it in thousands of movies through the years bring the immediacy of identification of what is essentially honest humanity.

It breaks through the made up writing, the fake sets, and the sometimes stagey acting. It is vulnerable youth, and a person long dead is magically young again and at the height of their powers.

Then (1953) becomes now (2012) and the actor is humanized (like us) and thus alive (like us) again.  Every lover of movies has a moment like this that they can point to, where the then becomes the now and the result is always fascination.


Scene Two: Home Town Story

   When I was a tween, and then a teen living in Marilyn’s hometown of Hollywood, I had just picked up one end of the rubber band of nostalgia, it was pretty slack and new.  I didn’t get it yet.  But my older sister Laura had been stretching her own band of nostalgia for a couple of years and there was something to it.  Who was the anchor at the other end?  Marilyn Monroe of course!

We visited Marilyn’s last home in Brentwood several times, peeking in from her street, 5th Helena Drive, one of the many numbered Helena’s bristling out from Carmelina Avenue.  My Mom wasn’t that tall, and we were kids, so we were short. Laura was the tallest, and she could almost see over the gate to the window of the bedroom that Monroe had lived and died in.

I thought it was kind of creepy and made fun of big sis for her ‘obsession.’  I thought it was even creepier when we would visit Marilyn’s grave, a wall crypt at Westwood Memorial Cemetery.  After all, what business did a little kid have at a cemetery, get me outta there!

My sis during one of our pilgrimages to Westwood

Laura would lobby for control of the TV, as we all did; and would “make us” watch “How To Marry A Millionaire” or “Bus Stop” when they aired, usually in early August, the time of Marilyn’s death.  For it seemed Hollywood itself was pulling a giant rubber band of nostalgia, and its anchor, somehow, was its own storied past.  Southland TV stations always observed anniversaries.

I’d moan and groan but usually stick around to watch, oddly compelled yet utterly unaware that a “nostalgia anchor” was being born.

I’d started to think about the times before I was born, what was life like during the War, the Depression?  My mom offered a few insights that didn’t have the relevance to me that they probably would now.  So I turned to movies and documentaries for articulation.  To me “the world before” was a mixture of the life Abbott and Costello lived in their movies and the surly dramatization of the same era in “The World At War” series, which was always on channel 9 on Saturdays.  Everything was in black and white and though interesting, it was not that accessible.

I needed color to bring some immediacy, like the Technicolor of “How To Marry A Millionaire” or “Bus Stop” for example.  Or “Niagara,” a color Marilyn film that was also a kind of nature documentary, with its lingering shots of Niagara Falls.  I saw that one and wondered if everything looked the same now (then).

We moved a few years later away from Hollywood and its self-conscious pull of the past.  My own nostalgia took a break for a few years.  I watched a lot of new movies and “lived in the now.”  Unbeknownst to me there was a rubber band being pulled, and it was starting to get tighter and tighter.  Born in the early eighties, my nostalgia anchor would make itself known by 1988 in New York.


Scene Three: The Asphalt Jungle

   Strolling down West 4th Street in the Village one day, I came upon a postcard shop.  They had a large section with postcards from old movies and looking at them made me miss my time so many years before (6) when I lived in Hollywood.  I was starting college that month and a little scared about my future so I started to think about my past, when everything was a little safer and cozier.  I remembered my time there in vivid Technicolor and started to fondly reminisce about the Marilyn movies I “had to watch” when I was out West.

I purchased a card showing a scene from “Don’t Bother To Knock” and that day a movie memorabilia collection was born.  I went back several times to pick up more postcards and caught a couple of movies on TV.  Marilyn, after all, was kind of cool and alluring and I finally understood my sister’s fascination.

I made a friend named Jordan while I was in college.  He introduced me to his real love; his anchor (one of many, for he was pulling many rubber bands) was the world of collectibles.  He’d made the realization that his main nostalgic anchor back then, Elvis Presley, could be made more real by owning things that were around when he was.

I looked in the yellow pages for memorabilia places in New York and quickly found a few favorites, places that specialized in Marilyn magazines and lobby cards.  Jordan had his own stable of Elvis places, which usually consisted of vintage record stores but also magazine places too.

Jordan and I compare notes after a day of prospecting.

When the other kids were out buying art supplies we headed out to search for 1950’s Life and Look magazines and first pressing vinyls of G.I. Blues.  I frequented a place off Lexington Avenue called Jay-Bee Magazines.  Located in the basement of an office building on 27th Street, its rows of leaning (and in some cases, falling) metal bookcases were presided over by Jay, the owner.  Tall repeating stacks of vintage magazines seemed frozen in place, the feeling of which was heightened by the tipped over cases that Jay hadn’t righted and the mags he hadn’t picked up.

I’d walk down the cramped staircase into the nearly darkened warehouse where Jay was always sitting, surrounded.  He’d wave his hand distractedly and say, “Hey Marilyn Man.”  If nothing was going on he’d let me pick my way through, if he’d found something good he’d excitedly get up or open up a drawer with his new acquisition.  Like the 1953 Philadelphia edition of TV Guide with Marilyn on the cover, or several 1954 immaculate Screen Gems mags retrieved from a Dell warehouse.  If I had the money I’d buy it.

Jordan and I did our research on the microfilm files at the Pratt Library.  This is how we found out what was what, and how I was able to complete my collection of Marilyn Life Magazine covers (not to mention how I knew when Jay had something good).  We’d sit in the dorm and watch “It Happened At The World’s Fair” or “The Prince And The Showgirl” on VHS, smoking cigars and acting like we’d lived it all back then.  Our friends thought we were a little weird.  We were actually, we’d both given up the resistance necessary to have good taut “nostalgia rubber bands” and had let ourselves be pulled back almost all the way to our respective anchors.


Scene Four: Something’s Got To Give (or does it?)

   Before long our dorm rooms were all decorated with Marilyn stuff or Elvis stuff, a friendly competition but a competition nonetheless.  Posters, postcards, vintage books, even strips of film negatives of picturesof pictures, we had it all.  I had two milk crates filled with only vintage Marilyn covers.  I’d started to think about the 1950’s era all the time, I can’t speak on what was going on in Jordan’s head but it may have been the same for him too.

Of course I’ve got this one!

Lucky for me I got a girlfriend.  Around the same time Jordan moved to California and the competition was over.  My girlfriend (now wife) brought me happily back to the present.  I let go the rubber band I had been pulling and it was a relief.  I still had and have other nostalgic pulls (obvious to even the casual reader) but no real obsessions.

But in the basement of my own house I’ve got my Marilyn collection in its entirety, kind of a “Jay Bee Magazines, Southern branch.”  It has followed me through many residences and financial ups and downs; and in a nod to the old anchor of my nostalgia, I ain’t sellin’!

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